Virtual Kandinsky

Dead man flying

Big Bang MP3s

In 1963, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson of Bell Labs noticed a strange hiss coming from their astronomical radio antennas. They eventually realized it was the sound of cosmic radiation — the background hiss of the universe. Since then, scientists have discovered slight ripples in the background noise, which correspond to various cosmic events in the history of the universe. But the frequency of these noises are about 50 octaves lower than what a human can perceive.

So Mark Whittle decided to make them audible. The University of Virginia astronomer shifted the sounds up into the human range and produced a series of 5-second .wav files of the resulting noise. The New York Times wrote a story about it, whereupon the guys at Engadget turned the .wav files into into MP3s — so you can download the sound of the universe being born and play it on infinite loop on your iPod.

And what, precisely, does the music of spheres actually sound like? A totally gnarly 70s synthesizer being coaxed into producing triptastic sound f/x for an unnamed episode of Doctor Who, that’s what! Seriously, this is some kooky stuff. One of the files — I can’t link to it directly, because they all download in a single .zip folder — sounds almost precisely like the opening “note” produced by the classic Robotron 2084 arcade game in “sell” mode. (If you want to compare it for yourself, go to Shockwave, where they’ve emulated Robotron in Flash.)

Even more fun is Whittle’s musical analysis of the birth of creation:

“For the first 400,000 years,” Dr. Whittle said, “it sounds like a descending scream falling into a dull roar.”

Over the first million years, Dr. Whittle said, the music of the cosmos also shifted from a pleasant major chord to a more somber minor one.

I can’t wait for some DJ to sample these sounds and produce “house music of the spheres.” Hell, maybe I’ll dust off my copy of Acid Pro and make it myself.

(Thanks to Slashdot for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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